Sen. Murray Challenges FAA’s “Biographical Test” for New Controllers, Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #111

Robert Poole
March 19, 2014

Sen. Murray Challenges FAA’s “Biographical Test” for New Controllers

In a March 14th hearing of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA) asked probing questions of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the FAA’s new controller recruitment effort (about which I wrote last month). Sen. Murray noted the plight of more than 3,000 graduates of the FAA-sponsored Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) program who have invested years and many thousands of dollars obtaining degrees in aviation and air traffic control. Under the new approach implemented last month, they no longer have first shot at controller training positions. Instead, they must compete with thousands of off-the-street applicants who are required to have no more than a high-school diploma or three years of any kind of work experience.

Even more troubling to her is the requirement that applicants pass a “biographical questionnaire” (BQ) in order to be considered for an opening in the training program. She noted that of the 28,000 people who applied, only 2,200 passed the BQ. Numerous knowledgeable CTI graduates failed the BQ, but cannot find out why. How can this be, she asked Sec. Foxx. The Secretary gave a pretty general reply, saying the agency had noticed that the group of people who apply for controller training “tend to be rather limited,” and that the aim of the new procedure is to try to recruit from a larger population. CTI graduates, he said, will have a leg up during the training—but of course that’s only possible if they have passed the BQ.

Sen. Murray was having none of this. She repeated her concern about highly qualified CTI applicants being turned away due to the BQ, and said that controllers union NATCA is also concerned about this. Nobody understands what the BQ is supposed to measure, or why people are failing. Foxx said that he will have FAA Administrator Michael Huerta respond directly to her on these matters. Just to be sure, the Senator repeated that she wants to find out:

  • Why such a small fraction of applicants are passing the BQ;
  • The current status of the CTI program; and,
  • What this new process is adding to the caliber of the controller workforce. (

Since I wrote last month’s story on this major change in controller recruitment, I have learned that some senior people in the Air Traffic Organization had planned on making CTI the primary source of applicants, and were even considering exempting those CTI graduates who passed the traditional aptitude test from some or all of the training at the FAA Academy (which would save the FAA money). This approach was first suggested by the DOT Inspector General in 2005, and was urged on FAA by Congress in the 2012 reauthorization bill. But now FAA has done just the opposite. From everything I can tell, the new recruitment approach was thought up by the FAA Human Resources department, not the ATO, and therefore does not represent ATO thinking on the best way to ensure a highly qualified 21st century NextGen workforce.